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Universities in Hong Kong

Outgoing HKU chief says Beijing officials have met him ‘several times’ and wishes higher education ‘wasn’t so politicised’

Leaving his post early, Peter Mathieson urges city’s leading tertiary institution to continue with international approach

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 3:03pm

The outgoing head of the University of Hong Kong has described his tenure as filled with “pressure from everybody”, saying that apart from local officials, he was also given advice “several times”* by Beijing’s liaison office.

In a frank, wide-ranging interview with the South China Morning Post, Professor Peter Mathieson also revealed his premature departure was prompted in part by Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a pro-establishment politician who also chairs HKU’s governing body.

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Li did not discuss the possibility of a second term with him despite, Mathieson claims, his entering “the fourth year of a five-year contract”.

Mathieson, who will take up the post of vice chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, called on Hong Kong’s leading university to continue its international approach, rather than focus solely on ties with mainland China.

Due to step down later this month, Mathieson is leaving at a time when HKU’s global rankings have risen, but with the Hong Kong public harbouring suspicion that officials are interfering in academic affairs.

“I wish higher education was not so politicised,” he said. “I think it would be simpler for people like me if politics wasn’t such a complicating factor.”

He will be succeeded by Professor Zhang Xiang, a mainland-born mechanical engineering expert at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.

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Mathieson said he had conversations “several times” with Beijing’s liaison office in the city – an organisation that some in Hong Kong perceive as tending to meddle in local administration.

“All the university leaders have had contact with the liaison office, and the office takes an interest in education in Hong Kong, as in other affairs,” Mathieson said. “I consider that part of my job.”

Other officials who talked to him included Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s education secretaries as well as representatives from the mainland’s Ministry of Education.

He said he felt pressure from “everybody” – politicians across the spectrum, alumni, students, staff and the media.

“They can tell me what they think I should do, but basically I do what I believe to be in the best interest of the university,” he said. “Yes, there has been pressure, but I don’t regard that as unreasonable.”

Mathieson conceded he sometimes held a minority voice on the university’s governing body.

Basically I do what I believe to be in the best interest of the university ... Yes, there has been pressure
Peter Mathieson

“I haven’t always got my way in the council, and that’s led to some difficult situations.”

He dismissed any “interpersonal difficulties” with council chairman Li, but admitted to feeling uncertain when Li made no effort to discuss what would follow when his contract as HKU vice chancellor was due to expire in 2019.

“I was coming into the fourth year of my five-year contract and … there had been no discussions with the council chairman about whether I would be offered a second contract,” he said. “Facing that uncertainty, when it became clear that Edinburgh was interested in me, I had to decide whether to participate in the contest.

“When the search firm first approached me, my initial reaction was: ‘I don’t need a job. I’ve got a perfectly good job and I’m quite happy here’,” he recalled. “But as time went on, I thought about it a lot ... and it became obvious that I should at least consider it.”

Mathieson argued that while it was important for HKU to seek mainland funding, it was equally important to keep an international profile. He cited his busy schedule meeting academics from “super partners” such as Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University, and also HKU’s dual degree programmes with University College London and Science Po in Paris under his leadership.

“For HKU, we have this great position of being able to work with China but also being able to work with the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s a symbol of international collaboration between similar universities. It’s a sign of respect for each other.”

*The quote “all the time” has been amended to “several times” throughout the article to more accurately reflect Peter Mathieson’s comments on his contact with Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.